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'It's very hard. It is surreal.' North Texans fear for their loved ones in Ukraine

Photo of Ukranians seeking shelter in a subway.
Emilio Morenatti
/
AP
A family sit in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine. North Texans with ties to Ukraine worry about their loved ones there. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Across North Texas, residents with ties to Ukraine say the past few days have been gut-wrenching as Russia invades Ukraine.

Olena Prokhorenko Ogiozee has been in constant communication with her mom since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Arlington resident peppers her mom with questions on the messaging app Viber. Does she have food and water? Is she in touch with neighbors? Has she heard or seen any military action nearby?

“She’s relatively okay right now,” Ogiozee said. “That’s like the best answer I can give because, unfortunately, they did attack everywhere.”

Ogiozee and other North Texans with ties to Ukraine have been closely monitoring developments there, many watching in horror as Russia’s military strikes targets and presses forward.

Ogiozee’s mom lives in Zhytomyr, a nearly two-hour drive west of the capital of Kyiv. She lives alone, but a friend whose house has a basement invited Ogiozee’s mom to stay with her.

“Honestly, right now, the main subject of conversation is if she is alive and how strong the bombardment is,” Ogiozee said.

Nearly eight hours to the east by car is the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. One of Ogiozee’s dearest cousins, who she calls her brother, lives there with his family. She’s been messaging him regularly too. Things there have been worse. News images show hundreds of people sheltering inside subway stations.

For now, Ogiozee’s cousin is at home. He tells her there’s shooting every one to two hours and that most of his neighbors are hiding in the basement of their apartment complex.

“Right now, I think everyone is shocked, you know…literally frozen where they are,” Ogiozee said.

For her, the waiting and uncertainty has been difficult.

"You don't know what to think. You don't know what to believe," she said. "It's very hard. It is surreal."

At one point, Ogiozee felt optimistic when she heard other countries were taking in Ukrainian refugees. She immediately messaged her mom and cousin to let them know, but they weren’t very hopeful about leaving.

“My mom is in the middle of the country, so she’s like ‘How am I going to get to the west?’, because Romania and Poland is the west border.”

Doing so would take hours and there’s no guarantee she would arrive safely.

As of Friday, an estimated 100,000 people in Ukraine had been displaced, according to a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency. Local refugee resettlement agencies say they haven’t yet received any guidance on the possible resettlement of refugees from Ukraine.

Chris Kelley, a spokesperson for Refugee Services of Texas, said his agency has resettled 26 Ukrainians since 2014. Of that total, 24 were resettled in Fort Worth.

On Thursday, more than 100 advocacy organizations urged the Biden administration to grant Ukrainian citizens what’s known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). That would give them work permits and protect them from deportation.

Chrystya Geremesz, a founding member of the Ukrainian American Society of Texas, said she wants Americans to understand why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ramifications beyond the two countries.

Geremesz’s parents came to the U.S. from Ukraine after World War II and she has family still there. She said if Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t stopped, he won’t stop with Ukraine.

She also said people should not underestimate Ukrainian citizens who will fight to retain their independence.

“I hope that the world stops and understands the sacrifice that Ukraine is making on behalf of democracy,” she said. “Because realistically, this comes down to democracy versus a dictatorship. Which is going to win?”

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

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Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.